Back in the heady days of spring 2008, the city's renewed partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee was a triumph.
Sure, a few naysayers thought Colorado Springs had better ways to spend tens of millions, but City Councilors quickly dismissed the bitching. This, after all, was about the future.
Eventually, Colorado Springs would be known far and wide as the "Olympic City" — creating local pride and economic growth. Leaders felt that being able to use the Olympic name in advertising and events, and having it splashed on a new building downtown, was a home run.
But the mood dampened when that USOC deal fell apart and (much less gleefully) was renegotiated.
Now, community leaders are trying to bring back the Olympic excitement — and marketing opportunities — with a massive Olympic Downtown Celebration on Friday, July 27. After eight months of steady planning, the festival will coincide with opening ceremonies for the Rocky Mountain State Games and the 2012 Summer Olympics.
A gargantuan screen will show the London festivities on NBC. Olympic figure-skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi and her husband, former hockey player Bret Hedican, will light our own Olympic torch. There will be acrobats and BMX tricksters. Country star Rodney Atkins will put on a free show. Kids will enjoy a synthetic ice skating rink, tennis courts and cool games.
In other words, it's going to be a big-ass party.
It's also going to be a gauge. If all goes well, if 10,000 — or even 20,000 — people show up, these celebrations could come every other year, coinciding with the Olympics, or even every year as a general celebration. Perhaps it could be a statewide draw.
For now, local leaders are holding their breath to see if their planning produces golden results.
Long time coming
Ron Butlin, Downtown Partnership executive director, remembers talking about an Olympic-themed event long before the USOC came downtown, when he worked for Classic Companies.
"The conversation's been in the works for a long time at different levels," he says. "...We kept talking about, 'What is a way to get Olympic Committee more involved, more engaged?'"
In fall 2011, city officials, including Mayor Steve Bach, were ruminating on the same subject. Donna Nelson, just hired as the city's economic vitality specialist, was charged with making something happen. She ended up working alongside Butlin, Colorado Springs Sports Corp. CEO Tom Osborne, and USOC representatives. All agreed to have the event coincide with the Olympics and State Games ceremonies.
"We just kind of started pulling together a team of volunteers to put this together," Nelson says.
Butlin's downtown group took the lead money-wise, spending $75,000, and the Downtown Business Improvement District shelled out for downtown beautification. The city offered in-kind support and emergency services. The USOC has covered certain extras like the acrobatic team and BMX show, and used its clout with NBC to arrange the downtown broadcast from London.
U.S. Figure Skating, meanwhile, secured Yamaguchi, a 1992 gold medalist who has since made a name for herself in the nonprofit world. Atkins came free, without any pleading, in the wake of the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Donations will be taken for firefighters at the show.) The Sports Corp. delivered another way to bring in more athletes.
"It's the same night that the State Games are in town, and thousands of athletes," Osborne says. "It just all came together."
Just the start?
Among planners, a wait-and-see attitude pervades as July 27 approaches.
"If this is wildly successful, then we'll do it again," Butlin says. "If it spins off some other [events], it would be great."
The Downtown Development Authority has invested in upping the city's sports cred by serving as a major sponsor of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and now dropping cash on this event. Butlin hopes the Olympic event will attract a regional following to downtown: "A lot of the merchants are having a sidewalk sale Friday afternoon coinciding with this party," he notes.
He also hopes that the festival gets national TV coverage, showing the nation that Colorado Springs stared down the Waldo Canyon Fire and is still beautiful.
Other partners seem eager to make the Olympic celebration a regular event. That includes the USOC, trying to prove itself an active community player.
The USOC has already made low-key efforts to thank the city. Its executives are required to serve on nonprofit boards. Employees are paid for a day each year in which they do community service. Then there are luncheons, sporting events and the occasional donation to a city cause.
USOC spokesperson Mark Jones, reached in London, says the USOC is willing to do more.
"We're certainly absolutely willing partners," he says. "But obviously this relationship is not limited to one day every two years."